NORTH CAROLINA–Media organizations covering the case of a 13-year-old murder defendant are allowed to publish the boy’s name, according to an early-March ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court. The decision later was upheld by U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Rehnquist rejected an emergency request by lawyers for James Cosgrave, the half-brother of the murder victim, to keep his name from being printed or broadcast. The youth is charged with murder and arson in a fire that killed an 18-year-old girl Feb. 18. Rehnquist, who handles emergency requests from North Carolina for the U.S. high court, did not issue a written decision.
Media attorney Jon Buchan, who represents the Fayetteville Observer-Times, said state laws on juvenile records allow the news media to publish what they discover independent of official sources.
In late February, the newspaper published Cosgrave’s name and photograph after learning the information from sources outside the Sheriff’s Department, which had refused to identify the suspect.
On February 24, Cumberland County District Court Judge Andy Dempster of Fayetteville said that since Cosgrave’s name had appeared only once in the Observer-Times and on a local radio station, further restraint on the media still could protect the youth.
Lawyers for the publication, as well as the North Carolina Press Association and the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters asked the state Court of Appeals in Raleigh to overturn the order immediately, or lift it temporarily, until a hearing could be held.
When the court denied the request, lawyers for the media bypassed the appellate court and asked for relief from the state Supreme Court, which struck down Dempster’s order March 2.
“The Supreme Court’s decision … recognizes that the First Amendment guarantees that the decision on what citizens say and what newspapers publish is not to be made by any branch of government, including the judiciary,” Buchan told the Observer- Times.
Defense attorneys had acknowledged the benefits to a free press, but argued that the boy’s name was not necessary to publish a factually correct account of the case.
Ronnie Mitchell, a Fayetteville attorney for the youth, told the Observer-Times he plans to petition the full U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. (In re Fayetteville Observer-Times; Media Counsel: Jon Buchan, Charlotte)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.